Thoreau was a walker but so is everyone else

Whose stories are held to be a reflection of who "we" are?

Every now and then I come across a comment about my book that mentions its glaring lack of Henry David Thoreau. (Is it the lack that glares, or Thoreau himself? Is there a Thoreau-shaped hole in the universe somewhere glaring at me?)

It does actually include Thoreau—exactly once because I figured that without at least one mention I’d endlessly be receiving kind emails pointing to his book/article Walking, which was originally published as a long piece in The Atlantic Monthly in 1862. Maybe it’s slipped in so discreetly that nobody notices it.

Leaving Thoreau out of the book was a conscious decision. I don’t much like Walking to begin with because right off the bat he writes scornfully of clerks and shop assistants, who rarely have the chance to get their bodies and sun-deprived skin out of doors:

“I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.”

I wonder how he would have dealt with pandemic lockdown in a city of millions?

He waxes on about these morally insensible people for a bit before taking a jab at women: “How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know,” later seeming to imply that women just up and go to bed at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. (Just . . . look, I know it was a different time, but honestly.) It might have bolstered him to know that I, at least, have spent big chunks of 2020 going quietly insane because I have trouble getting out of the house for various reasons mostly related to being a mother.

Considering his reputation for being justice-minded, it’s jarring to read such near-contempt for people who had fewer choices than he did about how to spend their time and certainly couldn’t have spent four hours a day sauntering over the hills (also he did not have children, and it’s easy to be dismissive of how people spend their time when you don’t understand how much of it kids can take up).

What’s more relevant to me is the stranglehold that writers’ fascination with Thoreau, Wordsworth, the Stoics, and the like have had on what we imagine walking to be. I read a large stack of books on walking over the past few years, and almost none of them presented the action as a birthright of all humanity. Instead, it’s walking as art, the walking of poets and philosophers, one might say elitist walking, seeming to agree with Thoreau’s claim that “It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker.” It’s intellectualized, cerebral walking.

What about just walking to work?

Then there’s the larger question of stories and how they create a society’s vision of itself. American school students are taught Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne and so on because they’re American classics, but who chooses a classic? Why do we have to read of Hester Prynne’s adultery in The Scarlett Letter* but are rarely introduced to the fiercely independent pioneer Alexandra Bergson in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! not to mention anything by people whose ancestors have lived here for tens of thousands of years (Leslie Marmon Silko notwithstanding—occasionally a story of hers makes it into the K-12 curriculum). Why is Thoreau hauled out as a model of freedom and self-sufficiency rather than, say, Sacagawea (as an actual person not solely Lewis and Clark’s guide); or Elinor Pruitt Stewart, a single mother who actually did explore the Wyoming landscape as a homesteader, not only on her own but with her four-year-old daughter—and whose letters were also published in The Atlantic Monthly? This hardly needs reiterating because so many people have written about it, but Thoreau’s time “alone” in the Walden Woods was punctuated by frequent dinners at his friends’ houses in town, and to his mother’s house so she could do his laundry.

Stewart’s case shows that it’s not just about who writes down the stories; her collected Letters of a Woman Homesteader is a fun, engaging read scripted by an acute observer, and it was a bestseller in its time.

It’s about whose stories are accepted as a reflection of who we are. It’s why we see such battles now over teaching a truer version of American history, acknowledging its violent beginnings and recent past and cracking open our understanding of ourselves to be more varied and complex, rich and intricate. To rightfully ask what a society envisions when it says, “we.”

—--

I recently finished a book about the mathematician Ramanujan—The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel. Everything about Ramanujan’s life lends itself to drama and romance: his early mathematical gifts combined with his failures in school (due, it seems, to inattention to exams and non-mathematical subjects), his family’s near-poverty in South India, his persistence in finding someone who appreciated and could support his mathematical genius, his eventual success in catching the attention of Cambridge University’s G.H. Hardy. The efforts involved in getting him to Cambridge, the groundbreaking work he did there, and, eventually, his death in 1920 at the age of 32 from a long and intractable illness.

Ramanujan left behind thousands of theorems and unique mathematical identities, work that confounded many of his contemporaries and still provides rich areas of research for mathematicians today. But in addition to detailing Ramanujan’s life and genius, Kanigel also wrote of what it meant for the mathematician to have been eventually supported both financially and academically, and wonders how many people in how many fields are never able to realize their potential due to lack of an environment in which they can thrive:

“What if he had been every inch the genius he was, with just as much to give the world, but his mother had been a little less supportive? Or he had been the barest bit less likable or less sure of his abilities . . . For those who have biographies written about them, the System by definition works; the measure of its failure lies in those who never bask in the warm glow of the world’s acclaim. Those you never hear about.”

It was one of the most surprising and enjoyable aspects of my research to hear people’s relationships with walking, their own stories and experiences. More people than I ever imagined talked to me about walking, most of whom never made it into the book but whose stories, and the spontaneous sharing of them, will stick with me forever. Sometimes it’s the stories that are gifted to us more than the ones we search for that have the most staying power.

The opening and growth of story obviously applies to more than walking. But it was, and remains, important to me because walking is such a formative part of our evolution and I was, and am, tired of the stories around it being over-intellectualized. We are all walkers, whatever that looks like for each of us.

—-

*I’m sure there are many who find The Scarlett Letter valuable, but it irritated the bejesus out of me in high school. The only book I disliked more was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

—-

Some related and unrelated stuff:

  • Speaking of the stories we tell, Marc Ambinder’s book review of Gambling with Armageddon, by Martin J. Sherwin, made me rethink everything I was ever taught about nuclear deterrence, peace, and the Cuban missile crisis: “There have been many nuclear near-misses over the years, almost of all of them the result of mistakes by ghosts in the machine—and many prevented only by young men in uniform, whose guts told them to pause and question direct or standing orders.”

  • I never get tired of reading High Country News, but their piece on Black cowboys has been one of my favorites. (I first learned of the history of late-1800s Black cowboys in one of my copy editing projects, a book club textbook for 6th-graders. Not all textbooks are bad.)

  • Daniel Schmachtenberger’s extremely long presentation on sensemaking for the Rebel Wisdom podcast is probably the most, uh, sensible presentation I’ve heard on the subject but I’m still waiting for one of these thought leaders to realize that there aren’t any theory-of-everything answers that are going to fix the human world and no amount of 3-hour podcast episodes with Joe Rogan or anyone else is going to change that.

  • I imagine there are scholarly flaws and anthropological misinterpretations in Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus but I don’t know enough about that period to find them. It was a fascinating read, especially for someone like me who generally doesn’t love reading history, and I appreciated his driving question, which was, to paraphrase: “Why is my son being taught the same inaccuracies and untruths about America before European invasion that I was taught in school?” I’ve had similar questions, though my kids’ schools do a little better on that front than mine did.

  • I did not read anything fun this week :( But our dog keeps chasing and snapping at the vacuum cleaner and it’s hilarious.